A wannabe astronaut delights in the many varied outer space-themed attractions, museums and classes in central Florida that are designed for all ages.
“One small step for a man, one giant leap…” Those words uttered by Neil Armstrong as he climbed down the steps of the Apollo 11 Lunar Lander convinced me of one thing: that I wanted to be an astronaut. Actually, I still do. But Florida’s Space Coast and its space themed attractions are probably as close as I’ll ever come to blasting off in search of strange new worlds.
Space Coast, the catchy name for a region covering 70 miles of Atlantic shoreline in Brevard County from Melbourne to Titusville, including Cape Canaveral and Coco Beach, is home to much more than rockets and flight suits. A great ecologically-friendly zoo, beautiful beaches, a busy cruise ship port, and unique sea turtle nesting grounds appeal to all types of vacation planners.
But no doubt about it: Kennedy Space Center is the main attraction. I highly recommend three days here to wishful space travelers young and old who dream of the stars.
Lost In Space
Since 1967, when the visitor center was built as a launch viewing site for astronauts’ families, folks have been coming to central Florida to get a glimpse of the American space program. After improvements and expansions were completed, Kennedy Space Center (866/737-5235), located at SR 405, Kennedy Space Center, FL 32899, took shape as a top-notch museum, which also happens to serve as an active launch facility.
The guided tours are awesome. From the Observation Gantry, visitors get a great view of the two Space Shuttle launch pads and a panoramic glimpse of the entire complex, including the impressive Vehicle Assembly Building (the largest building by volume in the world), where the Shuttles are maintained and assembled before launch. With the rarity of flights these days, chances aren’t as good as they used to be that a Shuttle will be on its way out to the pads, standing upright on a giant crawler which rolls along a huge gravel path right next to the road.
You can make up for that thrill by signing up everyone for the Shuttle Launch Experience, a full-body, virtual-reality simulation of the blast-off and skillful control needed to fly one of these beauties into space,
Just down that road at the Apollo/Saturn V Center, small-scale displays, multimedia presentations, and a huge Saturn moon rocket that was built (but never launched) are part of an exhibit devoted to the Apollo lunar landing program. A glimpse of such a large rocket, displayed on its side, is quite stunning. One can only imagine what it must have been like to sit atop it in a cramped capsule as the whole thing exploded upwards with the force of, well, a rocket!
At the Apollo Center, visitors are initially led into a room designed to look like a circa-1979 launch control room. A countdown ensues, lights flash, and a huge rumble is heard and felt from beyond the back wall. Kids will love it; to adults, the whole re-creation may seem a little corny, until one realizes that the room is not a re-creation at all, it is indeed the actual Apollo control room, where moon launches were planned and directed 40 years ago. The Treasures Gallery, built to commemorate the Apollo program’s 40th anniversary, features rare spacesuits and personal gear from Apollo astronauts among its “treasures.”
Look Behind the Scenes
From an observation deck enclosed with thick glass at the the International Space Station Center, visitors are able to look down upon the happenings of a real NASA laboratory where components of the International Space Station are assembled and prepared for orbit. On the day I visited, a utility compartment full of spare parts and astronaut garbage that had just returned from space was being emptied. Rocket scientists, draped in white coats and sterile hairnets, scurried to and fro — lots of brainpower down on that floor.
At the main visitor’s center, a number of exhibits, an IMAX film, a full-scale Shuttle replica, a huge “rocket garden,” a gift shop, and several casual dining options can be found. The ticket booth is also the stop for shuttle busses which transport visitors around the complex.
Those interested in an even closer look can join up-close-and-personal, added-price tours of the complex: one buses visitors to within feet of the Shuttle launch pads, another ventures out to various rocket launch facilities for a glimpse of NASA’s rich history. But the best time to see the Space Center is on a launch day– Shuttle launch schedules and viewing information is available on the website.
Astronaut for a Day or 2
A few years back, the Space Center decided to help families live the life of an astronaut with the Family Astronaut Training Experience. This two-day program for adults and children ages 8 to 14-years is designed to encourage budding astronauts and rocket scientists. According to the folks at KSC, family members get involved in astronaut training, riding space simulators, building and launching their own rockets, meet a real NASA astronaut and explore the KSC grounds on a very special tour. The experience culminates as participants train and work together to perform a Space Shuttle mission to the International Space Station in a full scale orbiter mock-up and fully outfitted mission control.
The family program is an outgrowth of the popular individual ATX sessions (in case your teen wants to try it while you go surfing), which provide visitors over 14 years of age with true-to-training simulator exercises, access into rarely-seen areas of KSC and a pretend, team-oriented Space Shuttle “mission.” Equipment used includes a 1/6th gravity chair and the multi-axis trainer, a centrifuge-like device that randomly spins and twirls its occupant in multiple directions and through 360º revolutions.
A number of additional perks complete the ATX package; note that a hefty fee and some height and weight restrictions may disqualify smaller children. The Family ATX includes hotel lodging nearby, Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex Annual Pass, special ATX logo item, dinner, breakfast and lunch. Advance reservations are a must!
Astronaut of the Future!
Another part of the Kennedy Space Center but located just a few minutes away, is the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame (321/269-6100). The Hall of Fame combines astronauts’ personal artifacts (the Boy Scout uniforms of America’s space pioneers are moderately interesting) with kid-favorite VR flight simulators and zero gravity strap-in rides. The fun half is all about hands-on: kids can squeeze into a replica Mercury space capsule, bungee-bounce to experience a stroll on the moon, or try on a pair of astronauts’ gloves— you won’t imagine how they’re able to move their fingers at all!
When you’re planning your visit, keep in mind that the Kennedy Space Center and Hall of Fame can be done in one long day, but to really see both spots, two afternoons make more sense. The Kennedy Space Center also offers overnight programs for school groups and other organizations — maybe I can plan my family reunion down there and we can all spend the night!
Now… if I could go back and start my life over, one thing I would be sure not to miss is a session at Space Camp.
Originally based out of Huntsville, Alabama, Space Camp (800/637-7223) is located at the U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame as well as in other U.S. locations. Five-day programs introduce participants (ages 7-11) to the incredible world of space; they strap into flight simulators, experience zero gravity, participate in “missions,” and learn a lot of physics (though this doesn’t feel like science class at all.) The dorm-style living can be fun, too.
Kennedy Space Center runs its own week-long daycamp (ages 8-14) which is not quite as involved, but does take place closer to the real action, on the Space Center grounds. Of course, you’ll have to book ahead for all these special programs.
Back on earth yet? There’s no need to rush your vacation to central Florida. You should allow some extra time to interact with our own planet’s unique environment, so your space cowboys will have a good reason to come back.
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